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Suicide Squad ••

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterStarring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie |
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: David Ayer
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: August 5, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, don’t look now but a group of supervillains is on the loose.

If you’re a fan of The Dirty Dozen, this will be only half as good. Let’s recap:

With Superman gone, the world is vulnerable to attack by evil beings who have Superman’s powers. CIA operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) decides to assemble a team of incarcerated supervillains who will carry out missions for the government in exchange for reduced time for their crimes. The villains include Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

Their mission, should they decide to accept it, is to rescue a VIP from the top of a skyscraper where evil witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) has imprisoned them. The team is reluctant to oblige, but they’ve all be implanted with super-small but super-powerful subcutaneous neck-bombs. If they don’t comply, off with their heads. And so we’re off to fight the coal-men minions protecting the tower.

Greg, Suicide Squad was a movie with great potential. Some of it was realized but much of it wasted. The strength of this movie resides in the memorability of two of its villainous characters: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. Both these villains exude charisma and left me wanting to see more of them and know more about them. The remaining three villains (Diablo, Boomerang, and Croc) were largely forgettable characters, and the movie suffers from devoting so much time on them. In fact, Suicide Squad spends far too much film time introducing its cast at the expense of offering good storytelling.

I heartily agree, Scott. I thought Will Smith and Margot Robbie delivered great performances. As did Jared Lito with his interpretation of the Joker. If somehow the focus was on these three characters I think DC/Warner would have had the basis for great follow-on stories. But as we’ve seen so many times this year (and with last year’s Batman v. Superman) special effects and action/fight scenes were emphasized over story.

I like to compare this story to 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. It’s essentially the same story. A bunch of bad guys are sprung from jail to perform one impossible mission. And in return the bad guys get clemency. The older movie took care to emphasize the evolution of the team with a focus on just a few of the lead characters. It was a successful mix which made Dozen a classic.

There is a hero’s journey for our heroic/villainous ensemble, although as you point out, Greg, it is hardly original. Our super villains must do the nearly impossible task of defeating a super powerful villainous entity and its hench-creatures. The interesting feature of this journey is that while it doesn’t really transform the ensemble, it transforms our perception of them. We learn that Deadshot is a family man with a soft heart. We learn that Harley Quinn yearns for a normal family life with the Joker. The movie does its best to convince us that these villains are hopelessly evil but we learn differently.

This is a DC Universe origin story. The purpose of the film was to introduce us to the fleet of villains we’ll see in movies to come. And as such, it succeeds. There isn’t much of a character arc to these characters because we want to learn who they are and why the are who they are. We don’t see much a transformation here so the hero’s journey is weak. We do see a bit of a “coming together” for the team. But the motivations for this teamwork are also weak. There’s not much holding this team together, and so the story itself doesn’t hold together well, either.

Mentorship is hard to come by in this film. There are samples of mentors, but none that were central to the story. We see Deadshot mentoring his daughter in a parent/child relationship. And we see the Joker as a dark mentor for Harley Quinn. I don’t think there are any mentors for the anti-heroes themselves. The “leader,” Captain Rich Flagg (Joel Kinnaman ) is less of a mentor and more of a animal trainer – keeping the villains in check. But when he destroys the control for the neck-explosive, somehow he and the crew of five agree to work together for the common good. But not due to some powerful mentoring on Flagg’s part. But for inexplicable reasons that each of the villains has for themselves. It all makes for a very weak mentoring plot.

Suicide Squad is a mixed bag. On the one hand, we are delighted to encounter a colorful and dynamic — not to mention formidable — collection of villains who are tasked with saving the world from all-powerful evil. On the other hand, not all the villains prove to be interesting and the film is so preoccupied with introducing and building up the ensemble that we’re left with a rather flimsy story. This movie was close to being good but falls short in key areas. I can only award it 2 Reels out of 5.

Our ensemble of heroic villains is fun to watch at times, particularly Deadshot and Harley Quinn. These two characters pack a lot of charismatic punch and left me wanting to see more of them and less of the others. The hero’s journey is in plain sight but I sensed that the characters are not terribly transformed by their journey. It is more the case that their story gives us, the audience, insight into their humanity (or in Croc’s case, his reptility). Because two of the supervillains impressed me with their charisma (one of the great eight traits of heroes), I can justify awarding our heroes a rating of 3 Heroes out of 5.

You’re right, Greg, that mentorship was not a central concern of Suicide Squad. Flagg and Waller play more of a zookeeper role than mentor role to our heroes. Deadshot seems to be the voice of reason within the ensemble but I called it more of a leadership role than mentorship. Good call, Greg, on the Joker’s sinister “grooming” of Harley Quinn. Overall, this film eeks out a mentorship rating of 2 out of 5.

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Suicide Squad was an introduction, of sorts, to the villains of the DC Universe. Stand outs Deadshot and Harley Quinn will be welcomed additions due to their complex natures and apparent flaws. Diablo, Boomerang, and Killer Croc are not so interesting and are likely to play lesser roles in the future. The movie is a visual feast, but lacks story and character development. I give it 2 out of 5 Reels.

This is an anti-hero story so we look for how well the villains devolve into their villainous roles. The seem no more evil and no more heroic at the end of the film than they do at the start. What we do get is a nice insight into what makes them villains. That is good considering this is an origin story for our villains. I give the anti-heroes just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And Scott and I agree there is a lack of mentorship here. Captain Rich Flagg and his puppet master/mastermind Amanda Waller don’t mentor our villains into something more heroic so they get no points. We are witness to the Joker’s dark mentorship of Harley Quinn. I can only muster 1 Mentor point out of 5.

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Ghostbusters ••

Ghostbusters_2016_film_posterStarring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig
Action/Comedy/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: July 15, 2016


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Well, Scott, they’ve rebooted Ghostbusters, what’d you think?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

These days it’s hard to find a movie that isn’t a reboot of something. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) who are estranged friends over a book on the paranormal they wrote together. Yates is studying paranormal events with Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) at a community college. The three decide to go into business together when a local museum has a haunting and Gilbert is “slimed.”

A fourth ghostbuster, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), joins the group after she witnesses a ghostly entity in the New York subway. The group hires a receptionist, pretty boy Kevin Beckman (Chris Hemsworth) who is quite dim-witted. Bad guy Rowan North (Neil Casey), an occultist with a chip on his shoulder, develops a device that summons all the ghostly spirits to wreak havoc upon New York.

This is the 2016 reboot of the 1984 classic. While many have compared the two films, I prefer to review this incarnation of the film on its own merits. And frankly, I was disappointed. There isn’t much of a story here. The characterizations are thin in favor of a large number of grandiose special effects. Like so many of the summer blockbusters this year, this is all about the experience and not about either story nor characters.

I pretty much agree, Greg. In many ways this movie reminds me of Independence Day: Resurgence, which also took a pretty good movie from yesteryear and made little effort to improve upon it. I will give this edition of Ghostbusters credit for casting women in the lead roles, which is a nice sign of progress for a movie industry that so desperately needs to broaden its inclusivity. It was also nice to see the bimbo secretary for the ghostbusters be a male rather than a female airhead.

The movie also portrays Erin Gilbert’s College Dean, who denies her tenure, to be a stuffy old male who obviously misjudges her. He’s a fool, as is the male head of the next college that denies our heroes space to do their work. In our review of Melissa McCarthy’s last movie, The Boss, we mentioned that all of McCarthy’s movies tend to turn gender roles on their heads. The only thing this version of Ghostbusters could have done to further the cause was to cast the main villain as a female. It didn’t, but the film still issues a strong statement about the emergence of women as heroes in the movies.

Frankly, I thought the all-female cast was more of a gimmick than anything else. We reviewed 2013’s The Heat (also a Melissa McCarthy film with Sandra Bullock). It was kind of Lethal Weapon with women. And like The Heat there is little in this film that was improved by the all-female cast. Certainly, nothing in the movie made issue of the fact that the Ghostbusters were women. While that may be a step forward for womankind, it does stretch believability as surely there would be some misogyny encountered were it the real world – but it was absent in the film.

Other than that, there isn’t a lot to talk about with this film. There are some nice cameos by members of the original cast. I thought Kate McKinnon’s performance as the bizarre super-nerd Holtzmann was over-the-top goofy. At the end of the film she makes a side comment about finally belonging somewhere, now that she’s a member of the Ghostbusters. But we were never given an inkling that alienation was a concern for Holtzmann. So, it’s a throwaway line for a character that was paper thin to begin with. And so it is for all the characters in this film. There was no room for character growth when the spectacle of CGI was the real star.

Character growth was never a goal when they set out to make this movie. The goal was to make money by showing people getting slimed by ghosts. So you’re right, Greg, that this movie provides some mild fun and entertainment but gives us little to sink our teeth into. You know a movie is in trouble when the highlight of the film is the series of cameos by the original cast from 30 years ago.

In terms of mentorship, we learn that Sigourney Weaver mentored Kate McKinnon’s character, although we never see the mentorship in action. In an ironic twist, our two ghostbusting authors, Abby Yates and Erin Gilbert, wrote a book that served as inspiration for bad guy Rowan North. We could call this an accidental or inadvertent mentorship, which is rarely seen in the movies.

Ghostbusters is a run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster where CGI is the star and story and character take a backseat. There were few jokes and way too many nods to the original, despite the great pains to make this new incarnation original. I’m OK with a film being strictly a no-brainer when all you want is to get out of the summer heat. But Ghostbusters offers little more than a visual feast. I can only summon 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes walk through the movie with little if any conflict to be resolved. There is a nice bit about the mayor of the town confidentially supporting our heroes, only to disavow them to the public. Not because he’s evil, but because he needs to distance himself from paranormal types or seem unmayorly. It was an interesting twist on the usual villain character, but it made for lackluster conflict. And, without conflict, there is little transformation. I only have 2 Heroes for our gruesome foursome.

As you point out, Scott, there is little mentoring. There is a cute cameo at the end where Sigourney Weaver pops in as an older version of Holtzman giving praise. So we have an implied mentor, but nothing concrete. Which sums up the whole of Ghostbusters. Lots of slimey attempts at humor, action, and relationships, but nothing concrete. I give the mentors in this movie just 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Greg, for me the CGI wasn’t good enough to be the star of Ghostbusters. “Run of the mill” about sums up the quality and contributions of this movie. I’d only recommend it for fans of Kristen Wiig, fans of Melissa McCarthy, and absolute fanatics of the original 1980s version. There is no new comedic ground broken here, just some mild fun and a few pleasant cameos from the original cast. I do like the all-woman heroic ensemble, but this grouping is not enough to salvage the movie. Greg, your rating of 2 Reels out of 5 seems just about right to me.

This hero ensemble does go on a journey that resembles the classic hero’s quest in myth and literature. But this journey is only a loose skeleton designed to hold the mediocre jokes together. There isn’t much character transformation, unless you count people becoming convinced of the reality of ghosts as a transformation. Our heroes accomplish their mission but there’s nothing to distinguish this mission. Again, a rating of 2 out of 5 Heroes seems appropriate.

I’ve already pointed out Sigourney Weaver’s mentoring role, which is merely mentioned in passing but never shown. And our villain was mentored, albeit inadvertently, by two of our four ghostbusters. Overall it’s pretty clear that this movie isn’t really about mentoring, only slime, and so I can only award 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Star Trek Beyond ••1/2

Star_Trek_Beyond_posterStarring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban
Director: Justin Lin
Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time once again to boldly go where moviegoers have been many times.

Yes, it’s time for Star Trek Beyond – or as I like to call it – Beyond Belief. Let’s recap.

The Enterprise is docking at the space station Yorktown for some much needed R&R and resupplying. We discover that Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) has applied to become a Vice-Admiral, and that Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is looking to leave Starfleet to follow the career path of the late great Ambassador Spock. Yorktown retrieves a vessel in distress and learns from her captain (Lydia Wilson) that her crew is stranded on a planet in a nearby nebula.

The Enterprise takes off into the nebula only to be devastated by a swarm of thousands of two-man ships. The ships embed themselves into the hull of the Enterprise and the aliens jump out and kill the crew. The leader, Krall (Idris Elba), is in search of an artifact Kirk has secured on-ship. The damage to the Enterprise is so great that Kirk orders evacuation and separates the saucer section from the rest of the ship. Kirk and a handful of officers crash-land on Krall’s planet and begin a plan to find him and determine the reason for the attack.

Greg, your complaint about the last Trek movie was that it lacked originality, having been based on a story from the old movie franchise. You and I both asked for some fresh material in the next installment. Well, the Star Trek gods listened to us and delivered the goods in a big way. Star Trek Beyond offers up a fresh story loaded with new adventures, dilemmas, and villains. The result is a summer movie sizzler that runs on all eight cylinders and shines in every respect.

One impressive feature of the movie is that, despite it being part of a long-running “series”, our two main heroes (Kirk and Spock) undergo significant transformations. Kirk reverses his decision to pursue a promotion, recognizing he needs to be where the action is. Spock reverses his decision to pursue Ambassador Spock’s career, and he also comes to realize that Uhura is his true love. They come about these transformations in interesting ways, too (more on that later). The strength of the two hero’s journeys is one of many appealing elements of this film.

Scott, I’m truly happy that you enjoyed yourself at this film. I could not, however. This film was rife with plot holes and scientific inaccuracies. After witnessing what is possible with such films as Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian it is hard to look at the most traditional of science fiction franchises and not expect that level of quality. This Star Trek is not the Star Trek I grew up with. It lacked a philosophical center that even the worst of the original series episodes managed to embrace. This was basically The Fast and the Furious in outer space. I was not amused.

Let’s take one of the climactic scenes in the film. Kirk and Spock need to find a weakness in the enemy. The vast swarm of ships under Krall’s control communicate in some way that allows them act as a unit. Long story short – they use VHF radio communication. This is just preposterous. Even today, we humans have abandoned VHF in favor of digital communication. To add insult to injury, the frequency that disrupts these ships is precisely the frequency of The Beastie Boys song “Sabotage.” So Kirk, et al, destroy vast quantities of the enemy by simply flying through the swarm broadcasting “classical music.” As I said, this was Beyond Belief. And that is not the most egregious assault on my willing suspension of disbelief. Virtually every minute of Star Trek Beyond contained just such idiocy. This was a literal face-palm moment for me.

There were plenty of meat and potatoes for me to feast on, Greg. For one thing we are treated to the trek universe’s web of warm, complex characters who, with humor and creativity, work together to solve life-and-death problems. So much of the appeal of the original series centered on interpersonal relationships, character dynamics, and (as you point out) philosophical weightiness. In all the Star Trek feature-length movies, this latter asset (philosophy) has to be given short-shrift or else critics will swarm and ticket-purchasers will stay away. So yes, by design this movie isn’t intended to make us ponder life’s greatest issues.

Yet Star Trek Beyond does manage to give us a villain who gives us something to think about. Edison is a disenchanted formed Captain whose xenophobia and paranoia transform him from good to evil. We see real world analogs in the current worldwide political scene. I love the way that the villain Krall was not a “pure evil” villain as I first feared; he turns out to be something far more sinister, a complicated man from inside Starfleet who was thought to have died a century ago.

In terms of mentoring, we have a nice irony — the person in the story who helps Kirk the most is our villain Edison himself, who during a fight with Kirk, accuses our hero of not really knowing who he is. This is a moment of clarity for Kirk. Edison’s words crystalize Kirk’s self-identity and pave the way for transformation. Another mentor for Kirk is his own father, who died when he was Kirk’s age exactly. I’d say this is more implicit mentoring from afar, the kind of mentoring that is always ongoing.

As much as I truly respect and admire you Scott, I fear you’ve fallen for a screenwriting trick. It’s called “bookending.” The only bit of character development for Kirk happens in the beginning and ending of the movie. We open with Kirk saying that he wants out of space exploration. (We never witness this. He is telling us, not showing us). And then in the ending he has an epiphany evoked by a single sentence by the villain. However, we don’t get to see that transformation. Kirk says it to the admiral in another talking-head scene. Hence bookends. We never see Kirk wrestle with these demons. We never witness his transformation. It’s all bookended by (literally) one sentence at the beginning and one sentence at the end. It is the weakest of character transformations that can occur in a motion picture.

And I can’t agree with you on your premise that “philosophical weightiness” must give way to action on the big screen. In all three of the movies I mentioned above we are given philosophical problems to contemplate. I demand more from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the galactic future. As should we all. But the fact is that screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and director Justin Lin (from the Fast & Furious franchise) opted to create massive visual effects rather than tell a character-based story. This is in direct response to the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars franchises. Simply put, this is Star Trek in name only. When comparing Star Trek to Star Wars, Roger Ebert said: “I’ve seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They’re called ‘Star Trek’ movies.” We see very little of this interpersonal examination in Star Trek Beyond.

And I don’t know how you can call the villain Krall anything but one-dimensional and pure-evil. His entire backstory and his angst are revealed in a scene where someone reads his profile from a computer screen. It’s just the most trivial character development in the history of film.

Star Trek Beyond delivers the goods in a big way. All our favorite Trek characters are back and give us exactly what we want to see in any good Trek movie – terrific banter, good humor, fun action sequences, a fresh new story, an unexpected villain, help from surprising sources, and good solid character development. The CGI effects, director work, and cinematography are all off-the-scale outstanding here. Everything is running on all cylinders. I can’t give 5 Reels because a movie like this is summer popcorn fare, but it’s the filet mignon of popcorn, trust me. So 4 Reels out of 5 will have to suffice.

Our two heroes, Kirk and Spock, are once again terrific buddy heroes, although it’s probably more accurate to view this movie as an ensemble effort. In our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we would probably call this group a police/military ensemble, to be precise. Anyway, our two heroes have all the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes – smart, strong, reliable, resilient, charismatic, caring, selfless, and inspiring. Plus they transform themselves in meaningful ways, as I’ve mentioned earlier. I’ll give our heroes a rating of 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The mentoring here is subtle, yet significant. Kirk must find his true identity and without a father or Captain Pike in the mix anymore, he’s left to rely on memories of his father. He also fights a villain with a big mouth, a mouth that challenges Kirk to find his true self. This is exactly the kick in the pants that Kirk needs, and so he later decides to remain Captain of the Enterprise. Spock’s mentor is Ambassador Spock, who may have the same distant, indirect mentoring effect as Kirk’s dad. Overall, it’s clear that mentoring was not a central feature of this movie and so the best I can do is award 3 mentoring points out of 5.

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I didn’t find the characters in this installment of the Star Trek reboot particularly engaging. They were shadows of the characters I grew up with. Sure Simon Pegg put some iconic phrases in these actors’ mouths. So they sounded familiar. But these were just phantoms pantomiming echoes of long-lost heroes. There weren’t any real revelations for these characters. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes.

I saw scant mentoring in this film. As you point out we didn’t have Captain Pike to guide our young Captain Kirk. The only mentors for Kirk and Spock were the lessons they learned from dead heroes. But we don’t see them draw upon these lessons and exercise them to some effect in this film. I can only offer 1 Mentor out of 5.

Scott, in the past you’ve advised our readers to “just turn off your mind” when enjoying summertime popcorn fare. I’m supposing you’re doing the same thing here. However, I think the legacy of Star Trek is that of a thinking man’s action adventure. We have plenty of movie franchises that offer quality entertainment without taxing our brains. Marvel does this exceedingly well. And DC Comics is hot on their heels. Star Wars has less complex character development in favor of action adventure. It’s also a beloved franchise that we’ve seen revived recently and held pretty much to its roots. This incarnation of Star Trek gives us something we already have in abundance: action adventure without a philosophical core.

I’ll give this film 2 out of 5 Reels because it’s good entertainment. It has good performances and decent CGI. But it falls down on basic storytelling and scientific accuracy.

In most of my reviews I relish the opportunity to lambaste a movie that falls down on the job. It is a chance to unleash the petulant smart ass in me. But this time I feel we’ve lost something of great value. In a universe full of brain-dead science fiction action adventure, Star Trek was a beacon of science fiction that is fun, funny, heart-warming, and smart. Something I treasured is gone. Star Trek Beyond was a final opportunity to return to the Star Trek Gene Roddenberry imagined. I’m in mourning because we’ve lost something valuable that we can’t get back. Star Trek is dead.

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